Transformational Climate Science

The Transformational Climate Science conference, held at the University of Exeter on 15/16 May, provided an opportunity for key delegates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) community to summarise important findings from the recent Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). The conference consisted of individual panel discussions for each working group of the IPCC, with keynote speeches made by the co-chair of that respective group, plus a further three panel discussions on climate-policy.

The first panel discussion focussed on the scientific developments made over the last five years. The co-chair of Working Group I , Thomas Stocker, lead discussions with a summary of various projections of future climate change. Key findings included that global surface temperature change by the end of the 21st century is now projected to exceed 2oC in all but the most mitigation-intensive scenario . Atmospheric carbon dioxide is currently at an unprecedented level compared with the last 800,000 years, and to achieve the regularly-touted objective of stability at 2oC warming future global emissions of carbon dioxide must total no more than 250 gigatonnes.

Far from being proactive in the face of these projections, global emissions currently total 10 gigatonnes per year and were shown to be rising. Individual extreme climate events, such as the European heatwave observed in 2003, can only be explained by including anthropogenic factors in global climate model simulations, stated Peter Stott of the Met Office. Therefore, the need to integrate climate with society in order to protect our environment becomes all the more urgent, said Corinne Le Quere of the University of East Anglia, with the general theme of urgency prominent throughout the discussion.

The second panel discussion, which focussed on the impacts of climate change and adaptation measures, again noted that certain observed climate changes are directly attributable to human influence. Despite the current implementation of adaptation measures, said the keynote speaker Chris Fields (co-chair of Working Group II), dealing effectively with climate change requires the introduction of ‘smart policies’ which must result from effective engagement between scientists and policy-makers.

Frans Berkhout, of King’s College London, further added that there are significant limitations to all forms of adaptation, which should further prioritize mitigation efforts. Sori Kovats of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, emphasised the regional disparities in risk of climate change, stating that exposure and vulnerability to climate extremes varies with location and noting that data on the socioeconomic impact of climate disasters is severely lacking. The regional effects of climate change, including effects to certain sectors within industry, noted the panel, need further quantification in order to aid policy-makers and to ensure that adaptation measures are suitable.

The Thursday afternoon session included a discussion on the science and policy interface, aided by contributions from Andrea Tilche, representing the European Commission. The inclusivity of policy-makers within the IPCC framework was an important topic of debate, as was the effectiveness of dialogue between IPCC scientific representatives and governmental delegates. The evening session was open to the public, and comprised a panel discussion on the future of climate science. The topics of future impact on society and current state of emissions were ubiquitous throughout the proceedings.

On Friday morning, a panel discussion was lead by representatives of Working Group III of AR5, focussing on the challenge of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Ottmar Edenhofer, the co-chair and keynote speaker, began by highlighting that global greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to increase, with the predominant driver being increases to income. Recent increases in fossil-fuel burning in Asia are comparable with the industrialization of the West, and effective mitigation efforts will require major technological and institutional changes to low-emission or zero-emission energy sources. The ethical and political dimensions of climate change were explored, including the accountability of nations for historical emissions and progress in developing sufficient political institutions to tackle climate change.

The final panel discussion, chaired by Dame Julia Slingo, Chief Scientist at the Met Office, primarily focussed on future developments to IPCC and the climate science field in general. Pierre Friedlingstein of the University of Exeter suggested that the three working groups of the IPCC could potentially merge to synthesise proceedings and provide a single publication in the future. Other topics considered in the discussion included quantification of potential public health effects within projections which is currently lacking in the discussion, according to Sir Andy Haines of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and in general a movement to including the regional effects of climate change within projections. The panel discussed at length various developments to climate model specifications which could be implemented to ensure that uncertainty within climate change projections continues to be reduced.

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